Being the best partner — 04 November 2013
Compassion makes the heart grow fonder

Being compassionate is probably the most important practice in keeping a relationship healthy and thriving. When both mates are empathic and compassionate their union is destined to be secure and satisfying.

Empathy is defined as: “The ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experiences of others.” Compassion is defined as: “A sympathetic emotion created by the misfortune of another, accompanied by the desire to help.”

Empathy, probably the most intimate emotion in human connection, differs from love since its pure transmission of profound caring is untainted by expectations of reciprocity. Giving and receiving empathy is a bonding and healing experience that deeply enriches those who share it.

Mark H. Davis of the University of Texas, who studied empathy writes, “A fully ‘empathic’ response depends not only on the respondent’s cognitive/intellectual ability to recognize the emotion, but also upon his emotional reaction to the stimulus.”

In “The Science of Evil: on Empathy and Cruelty” Simon Baron Cohen describes the complexity of “the empathy circuit” as “requiring the interaction between ten or more parts of the brain to produce the experience of empathy.”

When one receives empathy, he/she is able to feel understood and comforted, even when few words are used. Yet, when one fully empathizes with a disempowered mate, he/she may absorb the sufferer’s helplessness and lose the effectiveness of being helpful. Compassion, on the other hand, allows the mate to be empathic while maintaining his/her wisdom and creativity in accessing alternatives for alleviating the mate’s suffering.

Sensing that the partner empathizes and can stay sufficiently separate to be protective is akin to the safety and security that infants feel in the presence of their loving parents.

One of the deepest fears of humans is being alone during times of emotional or physical distress. The mere presence of another caring individual is bracing and hope-instilling enough to enable one to find the courage and strength to move toward self-protection and healing.

Pairs who regularly exhibit positive intent about what matters to the spouse feel bonded and safe. Conversely, those whose disagreements produce accusations, shaming or belittling often feel misunderstood, abandoned, unsupported as they withdraw from their union for safety and self-preservation. A pattern of isolation and hurt damages the connection between partners and shatters the foundations of their presumed supportive union.

In therapy, when couples move from their personal hurts and emotional isolation to experiencing the mate as empathic and compassionate, they open themselves to the cycle of healing and bonding.

To be a consistently empathic and compassionate mate you need to focus on being mostly concerned with your partner’s joys and pains. When both spouses practice being fully attentive to and protective of each other, they feel safe, supported and securely and happily bonded to each other.

To be a compassionate mate:

  •  Listen and respond empathically to your partner’s needs, joys and sorrows.
  • Use compassion in being resourceful and protective of your mate when he/she is bewildered, overwhelmed or stressed.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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